Education & Family

Federal Indian boarding schools still exist, but what’s inside may be surprising

“The moment I landed there, they took me downstairs, took all my clothes off, and threw a bunch of green stuff all over me,” Neconie mentioned.

He described his time right here as an expertise marked by abuse — each emotional and bodily — and mentioned that sure academics would normally beat college students for performing up or simply for talking their very own language.

The experiences have been so terrible that when one of many buildings at Riverside, referred to as Kiowa lodge, burned down, he stood by and cheered: “I laughed when they tore it down.”

History of Riverside

Riverside sits perched alongside a hill overlooking the Washita River in Anadarko, the very coronary heart of Indian Country in southwest Oklahoma. This is Caddo, Delaware and Wichita land. The college opened its doorways in 1871 and is one in every of 4 off-reservation boarding schools still working within the U.S. immediately.

An outdated photograph of the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Okla. (Oklahoma Historical Society)

Oklahoma at one time had the best variety of federal Indian boarding schools, greater than 80, based on the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. That’s one of many the explanation why it was chosen as the primary cease on Interior Secretary Haaland’s “Road to Healing” tour: a months-long effort to listen to from boarding college survivors about their experiences.

In current months, there’s been a renewed highlight on these boarding schools, after the Department of Interior, for the primary time ever, admitted its position in creating the system in 1819 and enabling the bodily and emotional abuse Native kids have been pressured to endure whereas attending them.

A report issued by the division final yr described how these schools have been a part of a long-running federal effort to erase Native languages and cultures and to power Native individuals to surrender their land and undertake white tradition.

Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, the center of Indian Country in southwest Oklahoma. (Oklahoma Historical Society)

Haaland’s personal grandparents have been taken away and compelled to attend boarding schools: “I want you all to know that I am with you on this journey, and I am here to listen,” she instructed the gang.

While many within the fitness center are survivors of the boarding college period, others got here to study and to hear. The historical past of those schools touched extra than simply the scholars who attended; their impression spans generations.

“I will listen with you, I will grieve with you, I will weep and I will feel your pain as we mourn what we have lost. Please know that we still have so much to gain. The healing that can help our communities will not be done overnight, but it will be done,” Haaland mentioned, whereas holding again tears.

In the mid-20th century, many of those schools shut down on account of studies of neglect and abuse, whereas people who remained made monumental modifications. Four are still open immediately.

Since Neconie and others attended, hundreds of Native college students have walked by the college’s halls and dorms. And now, in contrast to throughout Neconie’s time, college students truly select to attend Riverside. But why?

Riverside immediately

In some ways, Riverside appears lots like some other college at 8 o’clock within the morning. The day by day morning bulletins blare over the PA system, and one or two stragglers hurry to class a couple of minutes late.

The sprawling campus is a mixture of new and renovated buildings alongside older, run-down ones — some courting again to the college’s inception. There are just a few transportable lecture rooms, an outdated pink barn and a model new basketball courtroom, all overseen by Amber Wilson, the college’s principal.

“Our staff works hard to make the students feel like they’re at home,” she says.

And for the scholars, Riverside is house. It’s still a residential college, so there are dorms and leisure amenities that may make it really feel extra like a junior school than a high college or center college.

Amber Wilson taught at Riverside for years and is now the principal. She believes it’s extra vital to maneuver ahead, quite than dwell on the college’s previous. “Our kids deserve what we can give them going forward.” (Brittany Bendabout for NPR)

“I always try to filter like, ‘If it’s good enough for my kid, it’s good for anybody’s kid,’ ” Wilson says. “That’s how I’ve always run the school.”

While Wilson and officers right here wouldn’t permit us to attend lessons or interview college students, she excursions us round, commanding attention wherever she goes and saying whats up to only about everybody.

Her cheery and unflappable demeanor interprets into the decor of the college. The dorm frequent rooms are dressed up with patterned blankets and paintings on the partitions. In the lavatory, even the bathe curtains have vibrant pops of shade.

She says they spent a whole lot of time adorning throughout the pandemic — Riverside was closed to college students for 2020 and 2021. Her huge mission was turning one of many college’s trailers right into a magnificence parlor for the scholars to select sneakers, attire and jewellery for promenade.

That house is an explosion of pink and black velvet with a number of sequins. “We got our jewelry over there. We’ve got a little bit of candy for them,” Wilson says. “This is a full prom experience.”

Much of the college’s decor is vibrant and exuberant, but additionally stuffed with delight. From murals on the partitions to newspaper clippings on the bulletin boards, all the things exhibits American Indian college students proud to be Indian.

Things that Donald Neconie by no means would have seen in his time right here.

This new method filters into the curriculum, too. Wilson says the cultural actions embrace drum-making, flute-making, gown and ribbon skirt-making, moccasin-making — even little issues like dream catchers. The tradition is built-in into as many lessons as potential, particularly Benjamin Blackstar’s artwork class.

Blackstar attended Riverside as a scholar, then returned just a few years in the past to be the college’s artwork instructor. He says lots has modified since he attended, primarily newer buildings and extra of a deal with cultural preservation.

Another huge distinction? Some of the scholars have taken to carrying conventional clothes — like ribbon skirts and moccasins — to really feel linked to their tradition.

“It’s such an amazing sight to see,” Blackstar says.

He felt a robust pull to come back again to Riverside: His siblings additionally attended, and his mother and father met at a boarding college. Many college students come to Riverside as a result of their mother and father or their older siblings additionally attended the college.

Students “singing old songs” at Keechi Cottage at Riverside in 1954. (Oklahoma Historical Society)

Despite a few of its older historical past, in current generations college students see it as a method to get a greater training away from their hometowns. It comes with its personal challenges, but Blackstar feels uniquely positioned to assist the scholars.

“We all have that goal, we all have that target, to educate these kids,” he says. “That way they can go back to their reservations, to their communities and spread that.”

Blackstar’s grandmother went to Riverside, too — 75 years in the past. He says she died earlier than they may discuss her expertise at Riverside, but he still sees her usually — her college portrait hangs within the hallway exterior his classroom.

Benjamin Blackstar teaches artwork at Riverside Indian School. He additionally attended college right here as a scholar, alongside along with his siblings. (Brittany Bendabout for NPR)

She’s surrounded by portraits of the category of 1948; nearly all the college students are smiling broad. Blackstar hopes his grandmother had an excellent expertise right here, when so many didn’t.

Dealing with the painful reminiscences that the college holds is one thing that many of the academics and directors have hassle articulating.

Justifiably so, as these conversations aren’t a easy historical past lesson. For many academics and directors, the college’s previous is tied up in intergenerational trauma.

Wilson says the historical past of the college isn’t formally taught within the classroom. She says she believes one of the simplest ways to heal from it’s to maneuver previous it.

“All I can do is just go forward from where we are now and not dwell on the past. I’m not a person that looks in the rearview mirror all the time,” she says. “I don’t let things like that distract from the work that we’re doing now and what we want to do.”

And what they’re doing now would have been mind-boggling to the scholars of many years in the past.

But does the longer term at Riverside imply by no means trying again?

For among the survivors of the boarding college system, the reply isn’t any.

It takes a group

Lorenda Long, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, needs to guarantee that Indian boarding schools still working immediately are the perfect locations for younger Native college students who wish to attend.

She was within the fitness center on the summer time occasion at Riverside and instructed Haaland and Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland about her expertise at a federal Indian boarding college in Arizona: Lower Greasewood, close to the place she grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation.

She says she left after one other scholar assaulted her when she was 9.

“I had never, ever been hit before,” Long mentioned about an older scholar. “I was in shock and I started crying, you know, and he just said some curse words to me.”

Her mom pulled her out, but rapidly despatched her to a different boarding college as a result of she couldn’t afford to care for Lorenda and her siblings.

At the Road to Healing occasion at Riverside, she spoke on to some tribal leaders who have been within the viewers, telling them they wanted to assist their younger tribal residents get a greater training.

“It’s us that has to do something for our young people,” she mentioned. “We can’t just expect Ms. Haaland to do it all by herself.”

Long is already pitching in.

Since she moved to Anadarko greater than a decade in the past, Long has taken it upon herself to care for youthful Navajo college students who transfer to Oklahoma to attend Riverside — those that would possibly really feel just a little homesick. She did so on the urging of a good friend who was a counselor there.

She says she’s like the scholars’ grandmother. “I want to encourage you to have an education,” she tells the scholars. “I want you to know, I’m here — if y’all ever need me, you know, just call on me.”

A few instances a yr, she invitations all of the Navajo college students at Riverside to a particular gathering the place she cooks conventional meals like mutton stew and fry bread.

She needs the scholars to know that, regardless of the tough legacy, these schools can be good locations. While what occurred to college students like her and Neconie was a very long time in the past, the reminiscences of these terrible instances stay.

“Some kids would run away and some kids would die from running away, get harmed from running away,” she mentioned. “And there were some kids that were sexually abused.” Now, she provides, “I feel it’s a whole lot better.”

Alumni from current many years discuss concerning the connections they made with academics, or college journeys they took whereas they have been college students right here. The college has a Facebook group of greater than 3,000 alumni who proudly tout the college’s motto: “once a brave, always a brave.”

Riverside’s future

One alumni lively within the Facebook group is Leandra Johnson — she’s Diné. She graduated from Riverside in 2007 and now lives in Bloomfield, N.M.

She left the general public high college she attended in Huerfano, N.M., to complete at Riverside, the place she says she acquired a greater training, and has a relative who works there — her uncle Junior.

“I spent the summer with him and his family out there and I just fell in love with the school,” mentioned Johnson.

“And I believe, ever since like sixth grade, I used to be begging my mother and father, can I am going? Can I am going? Can I am going?

When she attended Riverside, Johnson mentioned just a little little bit of the college’s troubled historical past was included within the curriculum. She additionally discovered Native American historical past that she was by no means taught at her public college in New Mexico, just like the pressured elimination of hundreds of Navajo on the notorious Long Walk of 1863-1866.

She learn the federal government’s boarding college report launched earlier this yr and was unhappy to see Riverside listed on it. She thinks it’s vital that the college’s historical past is taught to the scholars.

Johnson remembers feeling extra comfy at Riverside as a result of she was round different Native college students and academics — together with the present principal, Amber Wilson, who Johnson mentioned helped elevate her. It felt like a household there.

Now, she has three kids of her personal, and her oldest, Aydrian, a shy seventh-grader who likes science and video video games, needs to go to Riverside.

Aydrian is aware of concerning the historical past of those boarding schools from his personal research: watching movies about it on-line and a few documentaries on TV. He is aware of kids have been pressured to go and that they misplaced their language and tradition. He thinks it’s vital for college students to study that historical past along with gaining among the independence and life classes on the college.

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